“Narrator” in his bed with water leaking in and dripping all around him. Every shot from inside this house is a window into the bilge-soaked and decayed recesses of the protagonist’s mind. I found the tooth brushing scenes particularly disturbing.
“Narrator” with Marla, a woman he hates because she represents all women and he is terrified of women. His dissociation and subconscious invention of Tyler is likely driven by his irrepressible fear of sexual inadequacy, an overriding theme throughout the film.
No Cosmos for Old Men: Narratives, Tropes and Archetypes
The mystery and futility of these words rings in the narratives found in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, thematically, this narrative is played out across multiple films, and actually can be found in all three films we have studied in this course. With particular focus on 2001: A Space Odyssey and No Country for Old Men, an analysis of characters and symbolism points to a distinct metanarrative with its own cast of players and their representational archetypes.
Whether it is the cold, dark slab in 2001, or the cold dark psyche of Anton Chigurh, the role of cosmic and mysterious fortune comes to life for the viewer to experience. The stark incongruity of the monolith, as well as the angular fastidiousness of Chigurh’s methodical nature place them within the narrative as symbolic world changers. Personifications and symbolism notwithstanding, each player precipitates a seemingly unescapable fate, and an irresistible unknowability for a would-be protagonist.
Dave, like Llewellyn Moss, finds himself at a crossroads of inevitability, an unwitting subject to an unfolding destiny and who, in the course of merely surviving from moment to moment, finds himself capable of that which was beyond his abilities. In the end, both characters fall, not to an end, but to a mysterious process in which they played a key role in perpetuating.
The narrative driven by the inner voice of the viewer for 2001 is driven by embodied voice of Sherriff Bell in No Country for Old Men. The viewer is situated in each according the intention of the author, in 2001 to be disoriented through change, and in No Country for Old Men as both a voyeur to the events with the point-of-view benefit of traveling alongside Bell in his journey. Questions are asked, presented into the scheme and answered within the subtle folds and layers of elegantly conceived story craft.
Technologies in both films become the tools of disembodiment necessary to bring the concepts to life, allowing the viewer to move through each chapter and accept what is being characterized apart from the deeper meanings weaved into the narrative itself. It may be easier to compartmentalize the wonders and horrors made possible by the technology as an aberration. However, for the viewer there remains a persistent linkage that demands attention.
Each film brings us to the questions that answer themselves, which, in turn generate more questions. From multiple authors a common thread can be found. Perhaps Joseph Cambpell’s theory of the monomyth in literary narratives may be true, that there really is only one real narrative, a framework upon which every tale returns to the same basic questions. The human drive to derive meaning, and to create, connects the viewer with an unalienable truth to which most human creativity is attached and for which no language suffices.
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only dance. I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.”
― T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Burnt Norton
File this one under “just because.” It was not required for our class, but the theme seemed to demand a blog post…
During our class discussion, Pete pointed out the significance of time in the scene change between the ape throwing the bone and the space station. Reflecting on this sequencing, I am compelled to look at the narrative meaning behind this and other depictions of time throughout the film.
In the space of two frames we jump from what could be interpreted as the dawn of man to the beginning of the end of man. It could also be interpreted that this process is followed by the rebirth. Which begs the question, what is it that Kubrick is trying to say about all of the time in between? Is it to fast-forward the viewer past tales that have been told and re-told in order to underscore the story at either end that has not? Or, is it a commentary on the insignificance of human evolution in the grand scheme? Although it was not part of this assignment, there is a very fitting time-related quote from the film No Country for Old Men, in which the main character’s father chides, “You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.”
The jump through time, conceivably backwards through the dawn of the universe into a realm in which time has jumped forward, overlaps, with Dave observing himself aging. We can presume Dave returns to the monolith and becomes the star child, representing the cycle in which human time ends and starts again.
This disruption of time, then, could be a narrative statement on the illusion of time itself. It challenges the viewer to conceive and re-conceive time in the context of the human search for meaning. Revisiting the film 2001 through the lens of the quote from No Country for Old Men about our vanity in the conception of time, and the T.S. Eliot quote, I find a very interesting narrative thread about time. Time as it relates to man and the universe, time as it relates to man and his father, time as it relates to man and himself and time as an illusion.
Treatments and Presentation
In 2001 Kubrick uses the visual narrative to juxtapose time and sequence, in No Country for Old Men, McCarthy and the Coen Brothers use dialogue framed within the futility facing the protagonist and the main character, and Eliot uses poetry to illustrate the passage of time as an illusion. In all three, the message in the end seems the same:Time is a democratizing circumstance that stops for no one, but is, in itself only a construction of our own sense of reality.
Bihlmeyer, Jaime. “The (Un) Speakable FEMININITY in Mainstream Movies: Jane Campion’s The Piano.” Cinema Journal 44.2 (2005): 68-88.
An analysis of the female gaze and poststructuralist themes in The Piano. This article also distinguishes the film and filmmaker’s symbolic representations and deconstructions/reconstructions of architypes within the piece that confront traditional ideations of femininity as a female “Other” and contemporary feminist narratives. For example, the wedding photo scene in which the eye of the photographer and then the eye of the husband-to-be become a central shot that underscores the objectification at the heart of the film’s overarching theme. Metaphorical perspectives on female castration are also referenced as an interpretive study into the violence and subjugation of women in film.
Giuliana, Elisa. “Challenging Bluebeard:‘Bluebeard’s Egg’(1983), The Piano (1993) and Barbe Bleue (2009).” Opticon1826 (2013): Art-7.
In “Challenging Bluebeard” Giuliana discusses the metaphoric relationship between Jane Campion’s The Piano and the classic folktale Bluebeard The film makes a very direct reference to the relationship between these two pieces by featuring the story of Bluebeard as a play performed within the story. Bluebeard has become a common focus in the study of feminist narratives in which the central female character is infantilized, objectified and, ultimately, in need of rescuing by a male hero. It helps to remember that for more than half of this country’s history, women were considered chattel that could be bought or sold into marriage without agency. While Giuliana toys a bit with the idea of role reversals and disruptions between the classic Bluebeard theme and The Piano, it seems a bit of a stretch, but worth discussing.
Radu, Delia Maria. “Angela Carter’s Blue Beard.” LITERARY AND CULTURAL STUDIES/ÉTUDES LITTÉRAIRES ET CULTURELLES/LITERATUR-UND KULTURWISSENSCHAFTLICHE BEITRÄGE 8: 97.
Angela Carter’s reworking of classic narratives present effective counter-narratives which engage the topics, themes and architypes along new lines of sociological and psychological thought. This essay discusses Carter’s interpretation of the story of Bluebeard specifically, however, reading her interpretations of many traditionally marginalizing feminine narratives gives a more useful perspective on the absurdities and romanticism of the classic infantilized female as the familiar tales are upended and retold in challenging and intelligent forms.
“He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know.
He who knows he doesn’t know, knows.”
-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
I heard Joseph Campbell say this when I was about 22 during a televised interview with Bill Moyers in the PBS series The Power of Myth. In many ways, this, among many other things I read and heard around that time challenged me to think differently, and to consider the wisdom of understanding and accepting that we do not, really, know anything. Campbell attributes the quote as an ancient axiom of anonymous origin, however it is framed within a dialogue in which a variety of concepts are challenged by Moyers and elucidated by Campbell. It is a well-known and fascinating series and Campbell’s work is a great study in myth and narrative.
Our discussion in class on the film Memento culminated in a small debate about the value of knowing. I submitted the argument that there are advantages to not knowing. Pete pointed out, that “not knowing may be great for some, but for others that would be terrifying.”
As I offer an analysis of the film for our class assignment, I think it is interesting to consider how our beliefs, biases, and fears in particular, shape the way and what we “know.” As a viewer, and especially as a scholar, it would seem imperative that I suspend belief and disbelief in the interest of investigation. Even if the goal is knowing, I can’t truly gain knowledge unless I am willing to consider all possibilities. By limiting possibilities, we can ultimately just tell ourselves any story we like, any story that keeps us from being uncomfortable, or any story that obscures information that could have horrible consequences. We can create a uniquely subjective narrative to suit our circumstances, which is really the theme of the film.
As the story takes shape, we realize we are only offered clips of reality in the life of Leonard. There is a splintered visual narrative in the captions on the photos, the tattoos and the notes that round out the scenes of Leonard’s life. These vignettes continue, out of order and overlapping as the viewer is challenged to make sense of Leonard’s story without a timeline, with limited or no context. In class we discussed how, in reality, we are all Leonard, moving through daily life in small narrative clips of consciousness that, depending on the conditions of any particular time, shape a metanarrative reality of what we know or think we know at that time. That’s interesting to think about when you consider how the limitations in the way we are presented with Leonard’s story, out of order and out of context, completely alters our perception of the reality.
"pictorial art's mystical ability to freeze time…" then reheat it over freeze it again. #dwma3180#memento
I chose the above quote from our text because it fit this movie assignment so perfectly. The film is a study of pictorial fallacy in a narrative that is reshaped every 15 minutes. How does the recording of a moment, in a photograph, change as the scene changes, as the character’s circumstances change? How does “freezing time” shape reality? And how does the film in creating a second narrative, then create potentially infinite narratives by presenting them out of order? And how does the result then create yet another narrative, which goes on in the empty space left, for the viewer to consider about the characters and him/herself?
Clues to a hidden narrative thread do show up in the film at different points. For instance, the characters Leonard interacts with seem to have a curious contempt for him, while the audience seems inclined to see him as an afflicted and sympathetic character. This made me very suspicious about who Leonard really was. Some clues were more literal such as frames, scenes that are not consistent with the story we are inclined to believe. Even as the film ends, only part of the character is revealed which leaves a lot of the canvas blank for interpretation.
Ultimately, what we thought we knew about Leonard is shifted, yet knowing it leaves more questions than answers. Who was Leonard, really, before his “condition?” Is Leonard mentally ill? Is he a murderous sociopath who has either consciously devised a story or unconsciously dissociated and compartmentalized his life with lies that perpetuate his behavior? Why is Teddy helping him? Is Teddy helping him? Was Natalie a bad person or an avenging girlfriend of a murdered drug lord? How long has this been going on? The list goes on…
So, coming back to our discussion on knowing, we were asked to consider the concept of knowledge and how or if it is really attained. My contention is that the need to know may, in fact, obscure the ability to understand. These are two distinct concepts, the latter, for me, holding much more value. I think it’s important to assume agency in shaping the narrative without disrupting the process of it beyond that agency. If I accept that any moment of Leonard’s story is only a clip, for which I do not have a context, I can be free to discover whatever possibilities exist as I come to learn more. If I constantly succumb to the urge to fill the empty space with my own narrative thread, I may make presumptions about Leonard that have no basis in fact. This can have value as a shock experience. But I believe I will understand more by wondering and postulating while leaving space for what I do not know, about Leonard, or anything else for that matter. Unless, of course, I don’t want to know. At that point I suppose I could start changing my own captions to avoid considering some upsetting thought or memory. I could redirect my own narrative and start filling the unknown space with what makes me comfortable. But isn’t being terrified what drives Leonard to start changing what he “knows”? When are we justified in changing what we know? Is that ever justifiable?
As Pete said at the closing of class, when it comes to “knowing,” we are all Leonard. All conscious reality is a clip of time, and everything we know, or think we know, is really not much more than a picture and a note. Memory might not be erased but it can certainly be reshaped by context, convenience and what we are willing to consider. And lying to ourselves may be easier than we think.
This person did a blog about Memento that I found interesting. In it she mentions Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a perennial favorite of mine and always a good reference in discussions like this.